Sometimes things don’t go our way. A loved one dies. An unexpected result comes. A relationship falls apart in a way we never could have foreseen. An infection returns. A business venture dissolves overnight. An attack comes out of the blue, shattering a body or a dream, or both. Something that seemed so solid and real yesterday turns out to be much less than what it seemed.
And a part of us cracks open. For a moment, all of our mind-made defences crumble. We are new-borns again, no longer invulnerable to the overwhelming glory and horror of creation. We are faced with the awesomeness of own impotence before the vastness of the cosmos, without the protection of ego. For a moment, we touch and our touched by the unfathomable mystery underlying all things. Impermanence bursts through the gaps in an outdated reality, and the sheer groundlessness of existence, the uncontrollability of events, the unpredictability of our emotional world, becomes obvious once again. Our eyes are open. Ancient teachings are alive. What is born must die. What is here will soon be gone. The very ground we stand on can open up at any moment. There is nowhere truly safe to stand. What is real? What can be trusted in this life? What is worth living for?
And we recoil. It’s all too much, the hugeness of experience. Quick, get back to normal. Quick, grab onto something solid, something manageable. Fix something. Seek something. Control something. Get a grip on something. Get an answer. Medicate. Work it all out. Distract yourself - with substances, with religion, with platitudes, with more and more and more experience.
Rather than face the unexplored terrors lurking in the deep, we fix our eyes once again on the surfaces. We shut out the greater terror of an uncontrollable existence by focussing on the things in life we think we have some control over. We block out our pain, and try to get back to normal, back to work, back to ‘reality’.
But normality is the problem, not the solution, and the old reality was too limited anyway. Life, in its infinite intelligence, was only trying to crack us open. We had become too small, too limited, too numb, too preoccupied with our own lives, trapped in our own stories, lulled to sleep by the comforts of modernity. In our pursuit of the positive, we had buried all that we had come to see as negative – the pain, the sorrows, the longings, the fears, the terrors, the paradoxes. These very natural energies we had pushed into the deep so that we could function, and be productive, and ‘fit in’. We thought we were ‘happy’. Yet our happiness had become so contingent, and our joy so dependent, and our contentment so very superficial. It was the kind of contentment that could break apart at any moment. And it did, for life seeks wholeness and nothing less.
And we are being called now to question everything. Everything.
Pain is not a block to healing, but a doorway. Grief is not a mistake but a portal. Even anger contains a path. And our deepest longings are not faults, but parts of ourselves that just want to be met.
Wounds open to be healed, held, be given loving attention.
Our suffering and the suffering of loved ones can often seem so random, so meaningless, so pointless, so cruel, so uncontrollable, and we rush to cover up our pain, hide it, deny it, or just pretend that we are ‘over’ it. As spiritual seekers, we may pretend that we have gone beyond, or transcended, or even completely annihilated our humanness. That we are invulnerable. That we feel nothing anymore except unending bliss. That we are so very enlightened, so very perfect.
But in the end you cannot hide yourself from yourself, because on some level you always know exactly where you’ve hidden yourself. The 'enlightened me’ is the greatest lie of all. Where would the ‘unenlightened me’ hide?
No experience is inherently traumatic, no experience is truly unmanageable, but sometimes experiences can release volcanic energies in ourselves that we had repressed, pushed down, refused to integrate in our rush to be a consistent and solid and normal ‘self’. In trying to hold ourselves together, we had actually torn ourselves apart.
And now life has come to the rescue, with its love of wholeness. The terrors, the rages, the confusion, the unfathomable joys that we were never able to hold, have been released. Sometimes life triggers an explosion in us… and we rush to contain ourselves again.
Here is an invitation to remain uncontained a little while longer. Be a little more inconsistent, a little more of a mess. There is dignity in falling apart.
Bow to all of the ancient energies that are now flowing through you. An old life is falling away, a new life has not yet coagulated, and you stand now on holy ground, full of raging life and possibility, broken open but alive to these lost parts of yourself, in touch with joys and pains you thought you would never feel again, energies you had repressed since childhood or even before.
Your suffering is not a mistake, or a punishment, and ultimately it is not even yours. We all suffer. We all get ill, get old, and die, at least in our physical forms, and our physical forms are holy. We all experience loss, and wonder why. We all lose control, or wonder if we ever had control. We are all faced with situations we never would have planned, choices we never wanted to make, things that seem unwanted now, circumstances that just feel ‘wrong’.
But in the midst of the unwanted, if we can slow down, and breathe, and come out of the story of “how it was supposed to be”, and turn towards the present moment, we may find things that are okay, even wanted, even sacred, even healing. And we may begin to realize that we are not alone in our struggle. We are connected to all of humanity. Our suffering is our rite of passage, and many others have been on this journey. We walk in the footsteps of our ancestors. We are being invited to love ourselves even more fiercely, connect with our breath more deeply, feel the kind of compassion for ourselves and each other that we never would have felt if things had continued to ‘go our way’. Whose way, anyway? And why did we expect that things would continue to go our way, in a world of impermanence and constant change? Did we really believe that we were in charge? Can a wave control the vastness of the ocean? Did we lose our humility, our sense of proportion?
We are not in control. Everything is dying from the moment it is born, as the Buddha taught. Everything is made of crystal. And therein lies our greatest sorrow and deepest depression, but also our greatest potential for joy and liberation. We learn to get out of our own way, and embrace the way things really are. We learn to love life as it is, and let go of our outdated fantasies. We learn that real joy is not an escape from pain, but the willingness to feel it, and real contentment means opening ourselves up to even the most profound grief. If we can touch our own sorrows, we can touch the sorrows of all humanity. This is not wallowing, or indulging – this is waking up, the opening of eyes, the birth of true compassion.
We allow even our deepest traumas to teach us about love, and compassion, and slowness, and remind us of the preciousness of each and every moment of life. We allow life to break our hearts wide open to Truth. Everything is burning, as the Buddha taught, and to cling to outdated pictures of reality only breeds great sorrow.
We knew so much, and now we know less, and that is not a loss, but our freedom. And there is something within us that is never traumatised, something ever-present and trustworthy, something that survives even the most intense sensations, that holds and releases trauma as the heart pumps its blood…
~ Jeff Foster
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